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Last year for our fourth anniversary I spoke with Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham, the creative team behind Five Ghosts. After running a successful Kickstarter campaign, the duo was preparing for the launch of the miniseries at Image Comics.
And here we are a year later and a lot has happened with Five Ghosts, which has gone from a five-issue miniseries to an ongoing series. I caught up with Barbiere to discuss the comic’s success, their plans for future issues and more. Also watch for my separate interview with Barbiere about The White Suits, a comic he and Toby Cypress are launching at Dark Horse.
JK Parkin: Last year at this time I think we’d found out that Five Ghosts would be published by Image. Since then, the series has gone from a miniseries to an ongoing, you’ve released seven issues, it’s garnered great reviews and a Shel Dorf Award. Was there a particular moment over the last year that made you think, “OK, this book is a hit”?
Frank Barbiere: It’s been a very humbling and surreal experience for the both of us. We’ve been working together for a long while, and to finally have a book reach an audience — to come out on a publisher we both read and respect — was really just a defining moment for us. I said early on, “Chris, even if the book flops and people hate it, we’ll get through five issues and no one can take that away from us.” That was our mantra going in; we were just happy to be at Image, standing on the shoulders of giants, and putting our book out to the world. The fact we’ve managed to find an audience and keep things rolling is really a gift. We truly love this book, and it comes from such a pure, fun place, that to be able to do it month-to-month is an amazing thing. We were tremendously honored to get the Shel Dorf award as well. It’s been a combination of everything that has slowly had it creep up that this is something that’s resonating with people, and honestly it just makes me want to work twice as hard.
On the flip side, and this is a position I’m glad to see many people at Image (and in smaller comics on the whole) adopting, there’s a desire to say “What can we do to get bigger?” I am astounded by the mild success we’ve had, but for every person reading Five Ghosts, I know there are still five more who don’t know what it is. Even with the visibility that Image brings, we’re a small book. I do everything I can in my power to get it out there, and frankly I understand if someone doesn’t “like” the book — what kills me is if they haven’t heard of it or seen it. Next week I’m about to launch a huge marketing campaign where I’ll be reaching out and calling retailers directly — I think things like that are the parts people gloss over, the work it takes to sustain even at a small level, and the never-ending set of hurdles “success” can bring. But it’s all stuff I love, so I’d never complain, haha! And that’s a very long answer, but hopefully it gets to the core of the question, yeah?
How has the last year changed your perspective on the comics industry and comics in general?
I think comics had a fantastic year. I am a huge fan and read a ton of books, and as a fan the fact there is so much I’m buying and keeping up with makes me happy. I think the medium really has something for everyone now, and the level of quality so many creators are able to maintain month-to-month is astounding. On the inside, I’ve come to realize the struggle is to keep momentum — you really have to fight tooth and nail to keep people interested, to keep retailers excited, and to keep yourself in check. Creating a monthly title is an epic sprint, and when you’re doing it month-to-month there’s no finish line. I’ve been fortunate enough to leave my day job and focus solely on comics, but it’s certainly a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day endeavor. I’m happy I managed to “break in” when I was ready; for years I thought “Oh, I can do that” and now I see just how multifaceted and high-maintenance of a job putting out comics is, and while I love it, I think it wasn’t until Five Ghosts that I was really ready to handle it.
Getting into the book itself, what’s been your favorite moment of the series so far?
In a wider sense, having our first trade out was a crazy experience. I’ve read comics for so long, and been writing/self-publishing, but being able to hold the collection and look at it–seeing the culmination of tons of work — that was a really special thing. It was the first time we could step back and say “Wow, we did this.” Also, getting Paolo Rivera to do a variant is amazing. My dad actually bought the original art, and I see it in my parents’ house whenever I visit.
On a person level, I really love Issue 4. We were fortunate enough to have colorist Lauren Affe join the team on the last pages of Issue 2 (our previous colorist, S.M. Vidaurri, got very busy with his own work, including the graphic novel Iron: Or the War After, via Archaia, which you should all check out; it’s wonderful), and she has really helped give the book a signature look. Having her and Chris collaborate every month is wonderful, and they are constantly reaching new highs. With Issue 4, there was an extended dream sequence where both Chris and Lauren took a lot of chances — and a lot of it was silent — and I think it came together beautifully and was something wholly original. There is a real joy in us finding “what the book is” and seeing it grow and improve every month; having a dedicated team that is always bringing there best work, and fighting month-to-month to turn around the book in frankly absurd speeds, is something really special. I’m so proud of both Chris and Lauren, and think they’ll leave quite a career piece behind with Five Ghosts.
Which ghost is your favorite to write?
It’s funny, because I find myself leaning quite a bit on Musashi because I just love to have swordplay and swashbuckling action. Chris also draws some damn great sword fights. I’m really going to be exploring what happens when Fabian utilizes the Dracula ghost, what kinds of things we can infuse from the literary realm. Also just opening up the scope of what this “possession” really means — the ghosts have been fairly superficial, but I’m having a lot of fun exploring possibilities.
Garry Brown stepped in on art for Issue 6, a single issue tale. Do you anticipate doing similar one-shots with different artists down the road?
Garry is a good friend of both me and Chris, as well as a top-tier artist, so having him work with us was really great. With Five Ghosts we feel we’ve really created a world, and to get someone else’s take on it, to see how they interpret it, is a really fun exercise. Five Ghosts very much is Chris Mooneyham, however — he breathes so much of himself and sensibilities into the book, and as a co-creator is quite an asset, so we really don’t want to bring anyone else on for an extended period. That being said, we are looking forward to having more one-shots in the future and letting some artists we love play in our universe.
Issue 7 kicked off a new storyline. Was this a story you’d always planned to tell, or did you develop it once you found out the series would continue after Issue 5?
We were lucky enough that when we started to conceive Five Ghosts, and particularly when I started outlining it, it really opened itself up. It’s the first project I worked on where the scope was there to tell a lot of stories, and thankfully Fabian is a character that quickly developed a rich history. Our new arc, “Lost Coastlines,” is based on some notes we prepared for a “pirate arc,” so the seed was there right from the beginning. A lot of people ask us if we kind of “tacked on” the epilogue when we found out the series would go on — and the answer is “No.” The fifth issue ends how it would’ve ended if I self-published it; in the case of Image, this is our first book and we didn’t want to come out of the gate with no proven track record, no idea if anyone would read the book and tell the publisher “HEY THIS IS AN ONGOING SERIES.” We certainly had the plans and infrastructure in place to move ahead if we were comfortable with where we were at, and thankfully that’s how things played out. As we move into the second part of “Lost Coastlines” (starting with issue 10–it’s a six-part story) we’re going to very much change gears and get a heavy dose of the literary. The arc has really been great so far as we’ve really expanded the scope of the story in every way–brand new characters, a bigger world, more locations, and a deeper mythology that goes very much outside Fabian. Issue 9 is being sent to the printer right now (with 8 on its way to stands) and we get another piece of Fabian’s past (told in a stunning pencil-art flashback).
What can we expect in the new storyline?
Everything bigger and better. More characters — most notably, a female pirate possessed by the ghost of Sinbad, who is going to be revealed in the opening to Issue 8. There’s going to be some fun Shakespearean stuff as well, and as I said–lots of great action and set pieces. The book is largely an action story with pulp sensibilities, so at the core it will always be fast moving and fun to look at. I also feel that as a team we are a lot more confident, in every way, and I think we are turning out some of the best work we’ve all ever done. Knowing we have the space to tell the stories we want to tell, to not worry about “cancellation” at any second, is very freeing — we very much are having fun ourselves and doing exactly everything we’ve ever wanted to do. Chris has also been absolutely knocking it out of the park with covers — I can’t wait to have them all together in once place. We’ll also be doing a very large collection with issues 6-12 (Issue 6 was extra-long) around May, so it’ll be really amazing to have another trade on shelves with so much more story. I think with every issue we build the world and mythology, as well as Fabian’s past, and by the time we wrap this arc he is going to be a very interesting character that fans are going to want to spend more time with. And of course there’s the council of literary villains that have been slowly presenting themselves — it’s all very deliberate and the payoffs will be coming!
How far ahead are you in planning the series out, and is there anything you can reveal about your long-term plans for the series?
Right now the book is plotted through Issue 25. We are very adamant about keeping this book on the shelves and rewarding our readers; we couldn’t do this without you, and now that we’ve had a chance to step up, we’re not going to go running the minute things are less than ideal. We aren’t going to do any silliness like relaunch with a #1, start doing tons of variants, etc. It’s inevitable that sales start to slip a little, and we’re prepared for that–we have a story we want to tell, and we’re going to tell it. Image has showed tremendous faith in us by letting us do the book here, and frankly it would be a damn shame to walk away just because our first book wasn’t doing Walking Dead numbers. We certainly appreciate everyone who picks up Five Ghosts more than they can know, and will be working to grow our readership and get the book out there. But as far as a commitment from us, we want everyone to know that the book will stay on the shelves, be out on time, and always be true to our vision–whether that’s something readers love? We can’t dictate that, but I just hope they know that we’re pushing ourselves and having the most fun we possibly can. As long as people keep talking about the book, stay enthusiastic, trust us and keep reading, then here’s no reason we can’t ride off into the sunset instead of abandoning ship.